Tom Mulcair is the first casualty of NDP brass hubris

Posted on April 12, 2016 · Posted in Blog

A visibly shaken Tom Mulcair could not contain his disappointment when he failed to capture the confidence of a majority of the delegates at the NDP convention in Edmonton. Whereas expectations were that he could capture 70% of the delegates in a luke warm endorsement, he did not even manage to secure half the delegates, with 52% voting that it was time for him to go. As far as confidence votes are concerned, this is unprecedented, as no Canadian leader has been shown the door with such abruptness.

In the end, this decision was really the only logical conclusion for a party with high hopes of forming government that instead got clobbered in the last election. Although I did initially believe Mulcair was a fine parliamentarian that deserved a second chance, it soon became obvious that he could no longer cling to the helm of the NDP. As more of a hired gun than a tried and tested social democrat, he failed to deliver on the promise of bringing New Democrats into power. He simply was not in today’s climate the leader to renew the social purpose of a party that now once again finds itself bordering on the margins of the Canadian political landscape.

The wider lesson’s of this weekend’s Edmonton results underscore the hubris that engulfed the NDP after their historic win back in 2011, and clouded more rational judgment about prospects for power. Instead, the NDP lost connectivity with their grassroots and genuine commitment to social democracy, all in a poorly executed Machiavellian quest for power that simply did not materialize.

To understand the pitfalls of the NDP in this election, we need to juxtapose it against their triumphant feat during the 2011 Canadian federal election, perhaps the most lopsided results in our country’s history. The Liberals were seemingly on the brink of elimination and the perpetual third party NDP, one that had failed to receive official party status back in 1993, had now become the official opposition. Against this backdrop, the Conservative party secured its much coveted majority government.

Pundits everywhere were decrying the end of the Liberal party, and I myself had doubts as to whether the big Red machine could ever genuinely revitalize into contention. Peter C. Newman heralded that the political Gods had changed, and that Liberal Canada was simply dead! A party of the middle had no logical place on the spectrum, so went the conventional wisdom, so move over team red, the orange tsunami had unleashed its force and an NDP government was on its way!

We all need to eat crow after making such whacky predictions on the basis of one election, and I do not exclude myself from this group!

In the heat of a transformational election, what everyone seemed to forget is that the NDP did NOT win in 2011. They formed the official opposition, a breakthrough indeed, but the story of greater consequence was that the Conservatives formed a majority government. Indeed, Jack Layton inspired many and was without a doubt the most liked leader, but Stephen Harper won a majority government and in so doing steered the country further to the right than he could muster in the five years in which he ruled with a minority. In the end, the NDP did NOT even come close to winning the 2011 general election. This is a point that everyone just seemed to forget, either by intention or mere shock at the lopsided results.

Election results must also be viewed in their larger historical context. Although the NDP were steadily progressing under the leadership of Jack Layton, gaining in prominence, and often leading in the polls in advance of last year’s election, they had still never formed a government. In other words, 103 seats was their high water mark, an impressive feat given their distant second best performance in the 1988 federal election with only 43 seats. Yet having never formed government before, and with an enduring Liberal brand that was showing news signs of life under the leadership of Justin Trudeau, the NDP smugly underestimated the Liberals and their capacity to vault from a distant third place to their peril.

And so they did. Once the writ was dropped, signs of a weak, underwhelming campaign were ever-present. The NDP were so confident that they made it a choice between themselves and the Conservatives, ignoring the Liberals at every possible opportunity. The NDP were no longer running a campaign to be the conscience of parliament, but rather to form the next government and this was laudable, but ignoring stiff opponents was politically dumb and reeked of arrogance. In a cynical lurch to the political centre, the NDP promised balanced budgets when the base was hoping for a more activist thrust. This promise was not red meat for the base, but more akin to stale breadcrumbs. Many of the rank and file in the NDP were deflated and disappointed.

Tom Mulcair also simply did not run a good campaign. He often appeared stiff and impersonal. His centrist shift for a party grassroots more accustomed to democratic socialism than to this bizzare “austerity light” platform were not amused. This was just a calculated attempt to triangulate (i.e. to wed small c conservative ideas in a format more amenable to an overall progressive agenda, quite popular in the 90s) without Bill Clinton’s charm.

In his final speech to delegates, Mulcair was underwhelming and his body language seemed to suggest that he knew it. In their secret ballot, the delegates seemed to tell Mr. Mulcair “you’re fired”. Although delivered with greater humility than Donald J. Trump could muster, the verdict was in and it was both decisive and harsh. In one fell swoop, one man’s political ambitions were dead, and the excitement if not delirium that drove the NDP since their impressive election in 2011 came crashing down to earth with one loud thud.

The wider lessons here are for us all to remember that government’s come and go, and political preferences are volatile. Yet sweeping generalizations about the future are often baseless, borne of hubris, or as the NDP has recently found out, can be crushing and humiliating when they fail to materialize. The NDP will have their work cut out for them in the weeks and months ahead, and they definitely face an uphill climb with a popular Liberal government and prime minister Trudeau, who’s comfortably anchored in the centre-left of the spectrum. But don’t count the NDP out just yet, as the universe unfolds in ways us mere mortals simply cannot predict, and never to everyone’s liking!

Jeremy A. Richler is a Toronto lawyer that practices corporate and employment law. He is an active member of the Liberal party and sits on the board of directors for the Eglinton-Lawrence federal Liberal riding association.